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Big plans to awaken city's faded dragon

Restoring a golden gate, improving Chinatown’s dingy image.

Dedicated in 1984, the gate celebrates the friendship between Philadelphia and Tianjin, China. A symbol of Chinese culture and spirit, it is the neighborhood's most recognizable landmark.
Dedicated in 1984, the gate celebrates the friendship between Philadelphia and Tianjin, China. A symbol of Chinese culture and spirit, it is the neighborhood's most recognizable landmark.Read more

After 23 years, Philadelphia's ornate Chinatown gate - the first authentic Chinese gate in the United States built by artisans from China - will be restored to its original splendor.

As that work takes place, Chinatown is also deciding how to improve its image among tourists and residents dissatisfied with the quality of life in the neighborhood.

The complex gate project, which could last more than three months, will require traditional materials such as pig's blood, flour and lime. The venture will cost about $200,000, of which $170,000 has been raised through city funds and local businesses.

From May 21 to May 23, a team from Tianjin, China, will inspect the 40-foot high, 80-ton arch to determine how the project should proceed.

The inspection team will include a project coordinator, a construction official, and two experts on ancient Chinese architecture.

"Where can we find pig's blood in the United States?" asked Weiming Chen, coordinator of the project. He was referring to the items needed for the Dizhang process, in which a special material is put over the wood of the gate before it is painted to prevent the paint from fading quickly.

Standing at 10th and Arch Streets, Chinatown's Friendship Gate is the most recognizable landmark in that section of the city. Dedicated in 1984, it celebrates the friendship between Philadelphia and Tianjin.

It is also a symbol of Chinatown and Chinese culture. The graphic pattern with golden dragons, called Long He Xi, is the symbol of Chinese spirit, said Guangquan Jiang, the painting expert who worked on the gate in 1984.

"We Chinese regard ourselves as offspring of dragon," said Jiang, adding that the pattern was only used in imperial constructions in Ming and Qing Dynasties.

The gate now has peeling gold leaf and paint. The Chinese calligraphy on the facade, which reads "Philadelphia Chinatown," has faded.

The weather in Philadelphia - it's too cold and too hot - faded the paint, said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., which helped develop the gate and maintains it.

In 2004, a local company replaced the old roof tiles and damaged wood. But repainting, the most expensive and difficult task, has to be done by Chinese artisans to maintain the gate's authenticity.

"You cannot find them in the United States," Chen said of the materials and artisans. "We have a lot of construction companies here, but ancient construction is a totally different thing."

The painting process is divided into preparation and repainting. Preparation includes removing the original paint, creating the Dizhang, and painting the patterns on gaoli, a special kind of heavy rice paper used during the Qing dynasty.

In 1983, Tianjin officials had difficulty finding experts for the Philadelphia gate so they invited Shuyi Peng, an expert in ancient architecture from Beijing, to help.

In 1985, Peng helped build a Chinatown gate for Washington, which became Beijing's sister city in 1984.

"Washington was jealous," said Cecilia Moy Yep, founder of the development corporation, which helped develop Philadelphia's gate. "They said, 'You, Beijing, helped Philadelphia, but we are your sister city.' We want a gate, too."

Though the gate symbolized the friendship between Tianjin and Philadelphia, the idea of the gate came from Chinatown.

During the early 1980s Chinatown was struggling for survival. It was boxed in by construction - the Gallery on Market Street, the Vine Street Expressway, the old Metropolitan Hospital to the east, and the Convention Center to the west. All limited Chinatown's expansion.

Yep said residents of Chinatown felt insulted when the Gallery was built with its front facing Market Street and its back to Chinatown. "We needed something to attract people into Chinatown," she said.

Standing in front of the gate recently, Yep said she still felt sorry that they could not build the gate on the end of the sidewalk, to a corner of Arch Street. (The subway tunnel under Arch Street could not support the gate.)

"It would have been more showing, more prominent, and much closer to the Gallery," Yep said.

In 2000, Chinatown fought the city over a plan to build a sports stadium at 11th and Vine Streets. Nearly 1,000 residents marched to City Hall to call for the plan's defeat - the largest demonstration since Chinatown was founded in 1870.

Joseph Eng, 87, who grew up in Chinatown, said housing was now the biggest challenge for the community.

"We cannot go south, east or west. We can only go north, and they want to block us," said Eng, a World War II veteran who lives at Spring and 10th Streets.

The defeat of the stadium plan, though dramatic, could not assure Chinatown's future development and growth, Chin said.

With the price of real estate in Center City skyrocketing, more and more Chinese have moved from Chinatown to South and Northeast Philadelphia.

Since early 1990s, the development corporation has launched its Chinatown northward expansion plan, building more affordable houses for lower-income people. In the last several years, Chinatown has added 700 households and expanded to south of Spring Garden Street, Chin said.

However, better educated and more affluent Chinese would rather live outside Chinatown.

Though struck by the beauty of the gate, Yakui Wu, 47, a former researcher at the Shanghai Social Science Institution, said he "had never thought of living in Chinatown."

"It is nothing like Shanghai," Wu said, complaining that Chinatown had dirty streets, outdated restaurants, bad service in hair salons, and limited parking. Instead of going to Chinatown, Wu lives on the Main Line and drives to a nearby Korean supermarket for Chinese food. "Simpler and cleaner," he said.

Chin acknowledged that Chinatown has to improve and market itself. This summer the development corporation will survey residents about how satisfied they are with the neighborhood.

Mark Chow, owner of the Sang Kee Peking Duck House, also suggested a survey for visitors.

"We need some promotion idea, like New York Chinatown did," he said, referring to the $1 sample food in Gotham's Chinatown.